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Archive for November, 2012

Fear of Falling

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‘Greed is Good’

The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is ploughed the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be. Just as the plough furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment. His attitude in this world will be that of divine happiness. Man is, so to speak, unripe: the heat of the fire of suffering will mature him. Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest men have suffered most.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks page 184)

The Role of Suffering in Personal Growth

After the first more general post on this issue, this one brings me onto a more detailed consideration of Sal Mendaglio’s book about Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD).

I have to own up. I’ve not quite finished the book yet and it is rather uneven. Some of the chapters are excellent while others leave too many gaps in the thinking to do full justice to the aspect of his theory they are tackling. However, I am already convinced that this approach to the human predicament has a huge amount to offer – not least on the issue of suffering and a related issue, sacrifice.

I will have to summarise fairly brutally here if I am to avoid seriously over-inflating this series of posts.

Rather as in the British Psychological Society (BPS) article I quoted from last time, Dabrowski sees suffering as triggering a process that can move in either of two directions. In his terms, it can lead us either to negative disintegration, regression to ineffective ways of being, and even to possible illness, or to a positive disintegration, an unusual take on the world, conducive to higher development and growth.

Where he differs from the BPS article is in the way he privileges suffering, even when it is apparently close to mental illness, as a necessary and powerful means of personal and moral development. This is all closely allied to his model of human potential which is hierarchical. It hypothesises that there are levels which rise from the lowest, least conscious and least developed (biological & social), through the next highest level which is somewhat more conscious and conflicted but still too automated and blindly conformist, via two higher levels of inner conflict which are more autonomous, consciously choosing higher rather than lower values, to level five, where the highest ideals the person can envisage are chosen and enacted regardless of social disapproval and discouragement.

The diagram above is a very crude approximation of his model just to convey a general sense of it. Mendaglio explains that Level I (page 35):

. . . . is a cohesive mental organisation dedicated to gratifying an individual’s biological instincts, drives and needs, including social needs.

The social aspect is not ultimately beneficial (page 36):

. . . . some individuals characterised by primary integration are overly socialised; their way of being in the world is highly socially conforming.

Level II involves a challenge to this comfortable conformity which makes it distinctly uncomfortable (page 37):

Dabrowski postulated that when crises have the effect of loosening the integrated mental organisation of individuals, they have limited choices. Individuals return to the previous integrated state or they move to the next level. Remaining in Level II may lead to bad consequences such as psychoses or suicide.

At Level III (page 38):

Inner conflict arises from the individual’s growing awareness of the way personal and social phenomena ought to be is discrepant with the way they are. The ideal-real discrepancy intensifies as the individual becomes increasingly self-aware and aware of societal values.

Without the suffering that spurs a person to abandon lower levels of integration which involve biological urges and social conformity, there would be no growth to start with, and without the determination to pursue the higher path in spite of the suffering it can involve, there would be no final peace of mind as the person lives out their highest values.

When a person reaches Level IV something Dabrowski calls the ‘third factor’ comes into play (page 26):

. . . . It is described as the force by which individuals become more self-determined, controlling their behaviour through their inner voices and values.

Level IV is a distinct leap forward (page 38):

Whereas Level III is dominated by disintegrating dynamisms, Level IV sees the rise of developmental dynamisms such as autonomy, authenticity, self-education and autopsychotherapy, and the third factor. Under the direction of the third factor, individuals deliberately select higher values and courses of action, abandoning lower ones. In addition, individuals develop a strong sense of responsibility for self and others.

The diagonal line on the top surface of the diagram is meant to represent the idea that as dissolving dynamisms fade, developmental ones increase in power.

In Dabrowski’s model at Level V (page 39):

[individuals] conduct their lives by enacting the personality ideal, whereby behaviour is directed by their constructive hierarchy of values. Virtually no inner conflict is experienced, since the lower forms of motivation have been destroyed, and replaced by the higher forms of empathy, autonomy, and authenticity.

Chrysalis from Music of Nature

Where suffering can take us if we let it

There are certain issues to clarify here. For example, in Chapter 3 of the book, Piechowski makes an important point (page 75):

I feel that the Dabrowski extolled the virtues of inner conflict perhaps too much, as he believed in the ennobling value of suffering but failed to mention that the ennobling is possible only if one accepts the suffering as something to grow through. Acceptance is essential.

It may be possible in a later sequence of posts to explore the parallels and differences between this view and the position of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach already explored in previous posts (see links) where the need to face pain in order to enact one’s values is central, but there seems little emphasis if any upon suffering as a primary spur. It may also be appropriate to bring in ideas from Jenny Wade‘s book ‘Changes of Mind‘ which also sees an hierarchical structure to our personality development. But more of that eventually maybe.

Tillier in Chapter 5 (page 119) quotes passages of great importance from Dabrowski’s own writing:

‘Crises are periods of increased insight into oneself, creativity, and personality development’ . . . . And: ‘Every authentic creative process consists of “loosening”, “splitting” or “smashing” the former reality. Every mental conflict is associated with destruction and pain; every step forward in the direction of authentic existence is combined with shocks, sorrows, suffering, and distress.’

This resonates with the view of spiritual traditions, including that of the Baha’i Faith, which place great emphasis upon the crucial importance of crises and ‘tests’ and the way we deal with them (Arabic Hidden Words: nos. 18 & 51):

O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.

O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

At the end of this path lies the highest development of the human personality. There are examples given of people who seem to have achieved this. The degree of empathy they have realised seems to make possible supreme acts of self-sacrifice, for example (page 99):

Janusz Korczak, physician, writer, and above all, educator. He was Polish and of Jewish origin. When the decision was made in the Second World War to burn in the crematorium at Treblinka all the children attending his school, he decided to go with them even though he had received an amnesty from the Nazis. . . . . The decision arose from the compassion and love he had for the children and his fidelity for them.

Or (pages 134-135):

Henri Bergson was born in France in 1859 and lived and taught there all his life. When, after the fall of France in 1940, the Vichy government introduced anti-Semitic measures based on the Nazi model, it was proposed, because of Bergson’s international reputation, that he be exempted from them. He refused to be treated differently, resigned his various honours, and, although at that time an enfeebled old man who had to be supported while standing in line, registered with the other Jews.

Part of this empathy seems to have derived, at least in some instances, from a strong sense of unity with all creation. Tillier quotes the Peace Pilgrim (page 62):

. . . . In the midst of the struggle came a wonderful mountain-top experience, and for the first time I knew what inner peace was like. I felt oneness – oneness with all my fellow human beings, oneness with all of creation. I have never felt really separate since.

Universal Values


There is a tricky issue lying behind this. Dabrowski places great importance on the value of autonomy. Suffering, in his view, spurs a person to discover what their highest values are in order to live by them. He also believes there are universal values and that some people, as a result of suffering, will autonomously choose to work towards these values. He is contemptuous of any education system that creates conformity. He trusts that we can and will choose these universal values, rather than be dogmatically forced towards them. Mróz explains this succinctly (page 231):

Dabrowski . . . . assumes the existence of absolute values prior to their experience by the individual. These values are only discovered in the process of disintegration and the discovery is associated with the achievement of advanced levels of development. . . . . . The values consciously selected and adopted by the individual . . . . become the building material for the personality ideal formed at these levels.

This raises various questions. A relativist, which Dabrowski is not, will ask, “Are there really any absolute values?” Someone with a strong sense that there are, if (s)he feels (s)he knows exactly what they are, might question whether it is safe to leave anyone free to decide for themselves what these values might be.

Interestingly, the Bahá’í Faith offers a way past this dilemma. On the one hand, it insists that people should be left free to investigate reality for themselves and come to their own conclusions. At the same time, it explains that, at this stage of human development, we must recognise the essential oneness of all humanity and the principles that can be derived from that recognition. If we do not, we risk taking, to paraphrase the Porter in Macbeth, ‘the primrose way to the . . . bonfire’ that destroys our whole civilisation. The principles we need to take on board include the detailed operational definitions of universal compassion and universal justice to be found in the Bahá’í Writings (see links to get started on that one!). So we can feel free, if we are so minded, to choose the destruction of all that mankind has created – no pressure there then.

Also this position leaves open the intriguing possibility that at a higher stage of human development we will be able to grasp even higher values. This in a way may be inherent in the Bahá’í concept of ‘progressive revelation.’

In the next post I will explore some further implications of Dabrowski’s view of suffering.

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Kazimierz Dabrowski

Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us better to adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed that we become aware of its usefulness. What man considers to be evil turns often to be a cause of infinite blessings.

(Shoghi Effendi: Unfolding Destiny pages 134-135)

Suffering

Sometimes an issue keeps poking you harder and harder until you simply can’t ignore it anymore. Suffering is one such issue for me at the moment. I did a couple of blog posts on the topic fairly recently and felt I had laid it to rest, if not for good, at least for a very long time. No such luck apparently. I kept producing poems that were locked into its gravitational field. The news keeps thrusting it before our eyes. I began to realise it was not finished with me yet even if I thought that, for my part, I had completely done with it.

Just before I made a recent visit to the Bahá’í Shrines in Haifa and at Bahji, I started a series of blog posts on mental health related issues. A comment was made on one of them:

. . . . two things that have encouraged me to see . . . mental suffering as growth have been developing a deeper spirituality, and learning about a theory of personal growth developed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist/psychologist, known as the “Theory of Positive Disintegration.”

I have to admit I’d never heard of Dabrowski but I’ve learned to catch at the hints life gives when I manage to spot them and I spotted this one. It was the first strong hint of something new in 20th century thinking, a different angle on the issue, and fortunately I snatched at it and obtained a book about his Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD).

I began reading it on the plane out, continued reading it in the Pilgrim House at the Shrine of the Báb after my prayers, and carried on reading it in the plane home. Conversations in the Pilgrim House explored the issue of suffering and some of his ideas. Even BBC iPlayer programmes I was watching on the plane out rubbed my nose in the possible value of suffering.

I heard Dave Davies of the Kinks, in Kinkdom Come, stating at 58 minutes in: ‘If there hadn’t been bad times I might not have have got interested in spiritual things.’

So, here I am blogging about it yet again.

The Effects of Suffering

Stephen Joseph

Perhaps the best place to start is with a recent article in ‘The Psychologist.’ To my surprise, when I got home I found that the latest issue contains an article by Stephen Joseph about the psychology of post-traumatic growth. Trauma can shatter lives, it is true, but for some it seems rather to be an opportunity for growth. He draws an interesting distinction between two kinds of reaction to trauma (page 817):

Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.

Work has begun on teasing out what specific factors might be involved in creating this difference in approach (ibid):

Research shows that greater post-traumatic growth is associated with: personality factors, such as emotional stability, extraversion, openness to experience, optimism and self-esteem; ways of coping, such as acceptance, positive reframing, seeking social support, turning to religion, problem solving; and social support factors (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009).

I wasn’t pleased to see that introversion is not included in the list of factors associated with ‘greater post-traumatic growth’ though it’s good to see that ‘turning to religion’ is definitely one. I remain quietly confident that the positive value of introversion will finally be recognised.

Joseph concludes (ibid):

Psychologists are beginning to realise that post-traumatic stress following trauma is not always a sign of disorder. Instead, post-traumatic stress can signal that the person is going through a normal and natural emotional struggle to rebuild their lives and make sense of what has befallen them. Sadly it often takes a tragic event in our lives before we make such changes. Survivors have much to teach those of us who haven’t experienced such traumas about how to live.

Suffering is not all bad

I have been aware for a long time that suffering is not all bad. In 1993 I had read Charles Tart’s Waking Up.

He argues, in the first part of this book, that most of us are to all intents of purposes asleep, or more accurately in a trance (page 106):

Each of us is in a profound trance, consensus consciousness, the state of partly suspended animation, stupor, of inability to function at our maximum level. Automatised and conditioned patterns of perception, thinking, feeling, and behaving dominate our lives.

He discussed ways of breaking this trance. Self-observation is a key tool. In describing its usefulness he also brings in a crucial insight (page 192):

Self observation is to be practised just as devotedly when you are suffering as when you are happy. Not because you hope that self observation may eventually diminish your sufferings – although it will have that effect – but because you have committed yourself to searching for the truth of whatever is, regardless of your preferences or fears. Indeed, suffering often turns out to be one of your best allies once you have committed yourself to awakening, for it may shock you into seeing aspects of yourself and your world you might never notice otherwise.

Dabrowski’s position, though, is far more complex than this, placing suffering in the context of a whole theory of personality development. A fuller explanation of this will have to wait for the next post. For now it is perhaps useful simply to note how Dabrowski’s idea of suffering seems closely related to Tart’s concept of a trance breaker. Sam Mendaglio, in the book he edited on the subject of TPD, writes (page 23):

Intense negative emotions and moods, typically regarded as impediments to growth and development, actually set the stage for advanced development by their disintegrating power. Intensely negative affective experiences begin the process of loosening a tightly integrated mental organisation. Though painful to individuals, negative emotions – the hallmark of inner conflict – allow people to achieve a more advanced level of human development.

His definition of what he feels lies at the end of this path through pain is of intense interest and concern to anyone seeking to gain support for a spiritual perspective on human suffering (page 23):

A developed human being is characterised by such traits as autonomy, authenticity, and altruism.

That seems as good a place as any to pause for now until the next time.

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Some years ago I posted a series of attempts to describe my work in the NHS as I experienced it. Since then I have been also attempting to use poems to approach the same experiences from a different angle. Because my poems tend to come from a darker place than my prose it seemed only right to publish the poems alongside the more positive feel of the republished mind-work posts. It felt as though that would be more balanced, more true to the experience as a whole. So, what I am doing is following up a prose post with a poem after a day or two, but they need to be read together to get a more complete picture of what was involved in the work I did. Above all else I would hope to convey the reality of this area of experience more completely by tackling it this way, and do more justice to the courage of those who suffered. They are stronger than we realise for bearing the unbearable so bravely. 

Only Our Simulations to Go  On

At best we never achieve more than a simulation of reality. Even something as apparently clear-cut and concrete as colour is no exception.

To see how Visual Illusions work – go to link

What we perceive as red is really nothing more than a wavelength of light and our experience of red is a coded response that has been allocated quite arbitrarily. We could just as well have experienced the “red “ wavelength as blue! More abstract things are of course even more liable to be the product of construction and elaboration in the brain-mind system which habitually fills in the gaps in experience as best it can to make sense of it all. For present purposes three aspects of this simulation concern us most: experiences, beliefs and flexibility.

Experiences are the raw material of the mind. They are what we access of the inner and outer worlds through our senses, albeit modified by the interpretive activity of the brain. Experiences range from mainstream to the extremely idiosyncratic. Dreams are about as idiosyncratic as experience gets for most of us unless we are placed in strange, extreme and possibly frightening circumstances. For some people however dreams seem to become part of their waking reality.

Beliefs are the ideas we form usually on the basis of experience. We often make heavy emotional investments in our important ideas. These then colour experience in turn and can even distort it at the time it happens or in memory. Again beliefs range from the conventional to the extremely unusual. Even the most middle of the road person can find their way of looking at the world morphing into strange and frightening shapes as a result of such things as prolonged isolation.

Experience suggests that most people manage to negotiate their way through the world without too much of a problem on the basis of the models of the world they have developed. Many people whose experiences and beliefs are well outside the usual run of the mill rub along quite well. There are relatively small numbers of people whose beliefs and experiences are not only unusual but also very troubling. These are often the people mind-workers have to deal with. The majority of them have only short-lived difficulties.

Much of my work, before I retired, was with those who are stuck in their difficulties. Their experiences are unusual, troublesome and intractable. It is in helping people deal with this intractability that the model of mind-work I am proposing here is most useful.

Steering between Rigidity and Chaos

Most of us live somewhere between rigidity and chaos. Our models of the worlds are sufficiently malleable to respond flexibly to the shifts and changes of the world around us. If systems of thinking are too unstable or unformed we will be unable to make sense of our world and make reasonable responses to it. If they are too fixed and too compelling we cannot adapt when circumstances require it. The antidote to such unhelpful fixity is the flexibility which comes from reflection, relatedness and relativity.

Complete fixity, which often though not always in psychosis results from the kind of high emotional investment and simplification of thinking that feelings such as terror can induce, makes therapeutic work of the kind I am describing difficult. Someone who believes that their survival is in doubt is unlikely to see too much point in a leisurely exploration of their inscape! If the terror, or whatever is driving the investment that is creating the fixity, can be somewhat reduced, then conversation becomes possible. I suspect that medication, where it works, achieves its effect by calming someone down.

Increasing our Leverage

Once conversation is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, become available. First, some space can be created between consciousness and its contents, and secondly there is a chance for more than one mind to be brought to bear upon the experiences. The space can be used for people to compare notes as equals – as two human beings, both with imperfect simulations of reality at their disposal, exchanging ideas about what is going on, with no one’s version being arbitrarily privileged from the start. There is a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that this process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking, can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:

it enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.

I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:

We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.

I feel that the conditions that I have sought to describe in this sequence of posts go a long way towards making effective interthinking possible. Effective interthinking and mind-work are closely related activities. Neither can happen at their best and most constructive in the absence of good relationships, reflection, relativity and relatedness.

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Inquest

The tip up seats are
comfortably cushioned
rising in terraces to overlook
the heavy long shining table
where the coroner will sit
in the echoing room
we whisper in pairs
while the huge chandelier sparkles
and the wooden panels gleam

I am sweating slightly
even though I will not have to
climb the steps into the upright
coffin of the witness box

a small bald man in a black suit
follows the clerk into the court
in which we stand as instructed
he squeezes through the crevice
between the jury’s bench and his
foolscap sheets of paper
perfectly white
are laid out before him
where he sits
on them he rests his golden pen

the jury is sworn in
and told their duties
they are here to decide
how he died
this man we knew
but didn’t know

the railway policeman
is summoned
and the man with the gold pen
in a slow and polished voice enquires about
the condition of the tracks
and establishes where the dead man
had left his bike and that he
had been trespassing

in silence
he writes down the answers
and in the silence
the policeman looks in his notebook
which he rests on the witness stand
for his next speech
and delivers it on cue

the coroner’s pen rustles
across the paper
clearly in the silence
the facts are being recorded

the pathologist lists the injuries
and confirms they were consistent
with what he would expect

first one nurse
tells how he left the house
quietly and unobserved
then another
of the friendly cheerful meeting
at the gate at two o’clock
where he said `I must dash
I have a long way to go’

off he pedalled,
without telling anyone,
to catch his last train

the psychiatrist and the nurses
were caught completely by surprise
they state nothing he said
or did gave any warning

the train driver, who has brought
his union man with him and stays outside
the court room till the last moment
smoking,
had been well on time coming off the bridge
he didn’t see the man sitting with his back
against a tree until he stood
and when the man walked slowly towards the track
and waited for the goods train to bring
at forty miles an hour
its thirteen thousand tons
the driver knew
for this was the second time for him
that braking
sounding his warning horn again and again
could not change
the ending of this last act

the man at the very brink
stepped onto the sleepers
and disappeared where the line
and the wheel would meet

the jury from the verdicts
that are offered by the coroner
choose the one which says
he took his own life
he never asked them where to or why

Pete Hulme Text © September 2010

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Divided We Fall

Now we have the results of the US Presidential election, there may be an opportunity to reflect upon some underlying aspects of the polarised debate between left and right without getting pulverised with arguments from one side of the divide or the other. A fascinating treatment of some of these underlying issues is to be found in Jonathan Haidt‘s recent book, The Righteous Mind.

He begins his analysis with a study of how well each side of the divide understands the other side’s mind set, acknowledging that he tends to favour the liberal emphasis on the individual rather than society.

He reckons the findings were unequivocal (page 287):

The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives.

Haidt is very honest about his own initial biases (page 289):

As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science.

The source of the study data takes a different view (ibid):

But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances.

Moral and Social Capital

He reviews his previous position and admits (pages 289-90):

I began to see that [conservatives] had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital.

This is strongly linked to another kind of capital (page 290):

Social capital refers to a kind of capital that economists had largely overlooked: the social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties. When everything else is equal, a firm with more social capital will outcompete its less cohesive and less internally trusting competitors.

He spells out the link with morality (page 291):

To achieve almost any moral vision, you’d probably want high levels of social capital.

And he goes on to state (page 292):

. . . . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

Unfortunately, this moral and social capital is a mixed blessing (page 293):

Moral capital leads automatically to the suppression of free riders, but it does not lead automatically to other forms of fairness such as equality of opportunity. And while high moral capital helps a community to function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities. High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or a fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.

He feels that the liberal-left is prone to discounting or ignoring the value of this kind of capital and that is a risky position to take (page 293):

. . . . .if you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism.

The Need for Balance

He feels that both political perspectives are necessary for a state to be healthy. He quotes John Stuart Mill (page 294):

“A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

He proceeds to examine various aspects of the moral matrices of the two camps. This clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

John Stuart Mill

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

The recent election has done nothing to reduce the potential damage that might ensue from this mutual incomprehension and increased polarisation. The US still has a Democratic President and a Republican Congress. This polarisation does not stop there though, he argues (page 311):

Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned.

Transcending the Divide

So, it seems pretty clear that a society that is divided, to put it simply, between those who place individual rights and freedoms first on the grounds of compassion and those who most value community solidarity on the grounds of fairness and responsibility, may not be able to sink its differences effectively enough to achieve the objectivity and unity of vision that will enable it to solve its problems.

From my point of view as a Bahá’í the way out of this stalemate is as plain as a pikestaff – not that you see many of those about these days. We need to develop a perspective that balances the rights of the individual with the needs of society. Even at this early stage in its development the Bahá’í Faith offers some fruitful insights into how this balance might ultimately be achieved.

The central body of the Bahá’ís has shared some profound reflections on this subject:

Freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of action are among the freedoms which have received the ardent attention of social thinkers across the centuries. The resulting outflow of such profound thought has exerted a tremendous liberating influence in the shaping of modern society. Generations of the oppressed have fought and died in the name of freedom. Certainly the want of freedom from oppression has been a dominant factor in the turmoil of the times: witness the plethora of movements which have resulted in the rapid emergence of new nations in the latter part of the twentieth century. A true reading of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh leaves no doubt as to the high importance of these freedoms to constructive social processes.

They are in no doubt though that we cannot uncritically espouse the ideal of freedom at all costs:

Bahá’u’lláh’s assertions clearly call for an examination of current assumptions. Should liberty be as free as is supposed in contemporary Western thought? Where does freedom limit our possibilities for progress, and where do limits free us to thrive? What are the limits to the expansion of freedom?

Their feeling is that the system of elected and appointed institutions within the Bahá’í Faith offers exactly the right counter-balance to the dangers of unbridled freedom. Clearly, the fact that all Bahá’ís have chosen to believe that these institutions are divinely ordained creates a consensus about their supreme value that is hard to match in the wider world. However, it brings very significant benefits in its train:
Within this framework of freedom a pattern is set for institutional and individual behavior which depends for its efficacy not so much on the force of law, which admittedly must be respected, as on the recognition of a mutuality of benefits, and on the spirit of cooperation maintained by the willingness, the courage, the sense of responsibility, and the initiative of individuals — these being expressions of their devotion and submission to the will of God. Thus there is a balance of freedom between the institution, whether national or local, and the individuals who sustain its existence.

Of course, the core value underpinning this system is the belief in the oneness of all humanity and the preeminent need to combine the compassion of the individual with the fairmindedness of an institution within the one system.  This makes it even easier to tread the fine line between liberty and anarchy on the one hand and fairness and oppression on the other.

Bahá’ís acknowledge that learning how to understand and implement such insights as these will take generations, partly because parenting and education are key factors in the process. But it is also true that every crisis, and Americans as well as most of the rest of us are surely in the grip of one, provides a great opportunity to begin to learn how to shake off old values and methods that have grown unhelpful and replace them with new more constructive ones.

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